Homebrew Safety: Tips for Avoiding Injury
I learned about safety in my homebrewery the hard way. I started out homebrewing about ten years ago wearing flip flops, and usually shorts, with not a care about the dangers all around me. My local homebrew shop told me that homebrewing was safe and that THE BEER couldn’t hurt me. That’s all I needed to hear at the time, but the lessons I have learned since then have been painful.
Homebrewing is Dangerous (Well… sort of)
I say that homebrewing is dangerous like I would say cooking soup is dangerous. If the pot was to fall off the stove and onto your feet leaving you with second-degree burns that would not be a pleasant thing. This outcome is not very likely unless you are being careless and inattentive, but nonetheless it is somewhat dangerous.
When you buy that first homebrew starter kit and brew either extract or partial mash batches on your stove indoors the dangers are minimal. Brewing an extract or partial batch indoors usually just requires that the homebrewer steep grains and boil wort. Being careful to not spill any hot wort during the boil and chill down is probably the extent of the danger here. Boilovers can cause a big mess on a gas or electric stovetop, but probably won’t hurt anything.
That method is how I made beer the first few years and I had a few burns here and there, but nothing serious. After 20–30 batches of extract brewing I fell in love with all things beer. What came next? All-grain of course! When I made the switch I found that all-grain brewing required some new equipment — and that once you go all-grain or take brewing outside the safety level changes.
I got a few large plastic water coolers and modified them with some off-the-shelf kits to turn them into a HLT (hot liquor tank) and a MLT (mash lauter tun). I didn’t have any pumps, so I constructed a gravity style sparge system that required hot water to be dumped into the HLT. I used a ladder. Not very smart.
I would heat water on the stove, climb the ladder (in flip flops) with a boiling kettle and dump it into the HLT cooler. (This method is NOT ADVISED.) I only share the silly way I used to make beer as an example of how to hurt yourself badly. At any moment I could have slipped off the ladder with the boiling kettle and ended up with horrible burns and other injuries. Once my wife saw how I was brewing she put an immediate stop to my ladder ascents.
My extract beers were always fermented in glass carboys because that is what the people at my local homebrew shop told me to do. Glass carboys are way more dangerous than plastic carboys. I’ve had my share of bad cuts from dropping and breaking carboys.
I luckily survived those early years of all-grain brewing and made the switch to a safer brewing method and system. Brewing with your local club and other homebrewers can really give you a new outlook on safety.
Here are the things you need to watch out for in your homebrewery and some essential safety gear you should have easily accessible.
Forgetting to Vent Propane
Propane burners release carbon monoxide and require ventilation. Brewing in garages with low or no ventilation can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Usually the side effects are just a mild headache, but high levels of carbon monoxide can cause suffocation, capillary hemorrhaging, permanent damage of nerve tissues and brain cells, and, possibly, death.
Not Cleaning Up Spills Quickly
A small spill can cause a big slip and fall. I personally have slipped on water and wort spilled on the floor and not cleaned up. I fell onto my elbow once and it caused a burst bursa sac. My elbow swelled up like a balloon and then became infected with staph. Clean up those spills.
Unscheduled Brew Day
We’re all guilty of this. Sometimes a spur of the moment brew day is the most fun, but put a few minutes into planning and you’ll make the brew day much safer. Running around like a chicken with its head cut off in an unorganized brewery is dangerous. Tripping over cords and tubes can lead to spilled pots of hot wort resulting in burns, electrical shock and injury to elbows, knees, and head. Not being ready for next steps in the brewing process can cause frantic action resulting in lots of injuries. Download a free Brew Pad from my website at www.homebrewing.com/brewpad or get a software program like BeerSmith for planning.
Not Knowing to Bleed Pressure from Kegs Before Opening Lids
When you first start kegging you may not fully understand everything about CO2 pressure. Kegs under pressure should be bled of built up gasses inside before attempting to open the lid. Failing to bleed off the pressure may cause the lid to fly off with great force directly into your face. People have died this way — take it seriously.
Not Testing Gravity of Beer Before Bottling
Bottles will explode if you cap the beer before it has been fully fermented. Exploding bottles can cause a huge mess and are considered similar to grenade shrapnel. Brewers call these “bottle bombs.” Having experienced some bad blow ups, I put my bottles inside a cardboard box to soften the blow in case something goes wrong.
Climbing Ladders in Gravity Setups
I already went over this, so just don’t do it. This is a quick way to fall, burn or scald yourself.
Homebrewing in Open-Toed Shoes
Like I said earlier, I used to brew in flip flops and I can’t even remember all the things I spilled or dropped on my feet. After I dropped a carboy and the exploding glass cut open one of my toes, I switched over to boots. Burns and smashed toes are not supposed to be part of the brew day. Go into any commercial brewery and you will see that everyone is wearing some kind of boots with non-slip soles (often rubber boots) and often with steel toes.
Loose Hose Connection Clamps During Hot Liquid Transfers
It’s easy to forget to check your hose clamps, but sometimes they become loose for whatever reason. Firing up a pressurized pump can blow a hose off the pump sending hot water and wort flying. Don’t burn yourself, always check those clamps.
Carrying a Full Glass Carboy with a Carboy Handle
Glass carboy necks can snap off and shatter, resulting in lacerations. Never carry a full carboy by just a carboy handle. Products like the Brew Hauler or Bucket Sling can help move a full glass carboy. Heck, just put it in an old milk crate if you have one. New plastic carboys and stainless steel fermenters are better alternatives in my opinion.
Touching Boil Kettle Handles or Sides Without Protective Wear
This is where those heavy aprons, lab coats and gloves can save you from brushing up against a hot boil kettle and getting a burn.
Cleaning Brewing Equipment with Caustic or Acid-Based Cleaners Without Protective Gloves and Eyewear
Most homebrew grade cleaners and sanitizers are non-caustic and mild in strength, but over time can cause damage/dryness to your skin. I suggest wearing elbow length rubber gloves when washing and sanitizing in sinks and buckets. Goggles can prevent splashing acids and soaps into your eyes. I had some Star San hit my eye one time and it burned for hours.
Not Using GFCI Surge Protection on Brewery Pumps and Electric Brewery Systems
It’s just good practice to have a Shock Buster or other GFCI outlet on all electrical equipment positioned near liquid. This will prevent shorting out the electrical device and electrocution of the brewer.
Not Wearing a Particulate-Grade Respirator Mask when Milling Grains
Always wear a particulate-grade respirator or mask when milling grain. Lung infections from bacteria like Lactobacillus naturally present on grain can occur. Other results may include “Farmer’s Lung” or Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis (FHP) or “Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome” or ODTS.
Large Amount of Grain Being Milled with Powered Motor Causing Excess Grain Dust
Most homebrewers use a drill to power their mill and this is perfectly safe. It’s only when you are milling a large amount of grain at a fast rate that you need to worry about grain dust explosions and fires.
What homebrewer hasn’t experienced this one? Beer tends to foam quickly when boiled and during hop additions, so just be attentive to the kettle and throttle back that heat if you see a boilover coming. Don’t turn the heat on and walk away. I suggest always having a larger kettle than the boil volume. Failing to do this can cause burns and flare ups on open flame burners.
The first question any workplace accident questionnaire will ask is, “Was this accident preventable?” Accidents do happen, and the risk shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the hobby of homebrewing. However, be smart, brew safe and use these tips to prevent hurting yourself.
Top: An organized homebrewery is a safer brewery. Useful protective wear includes: long rubber heat and chemical-resistant gloves, goggles, thick apron or lab coat, hard hat, particulate respirator/mask. Also, equip your homebrewery with GFCI surge protector, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, carbon monoxide detector, anti-slip mats and beer bottle storage boxes.
Top middle: Boiling wort can be a hazard. Never turn the heat on and walk away; always watch your boil to avoid boilovers and spills. Always have a larger kettle than the boil volume.
Bottom middle: Always check your clamps before using. A pressurized pump can blow a hose off the pump sending hot water and wort flying.
Bottom: Plastic carboys are always safer than glass in terms of breakage. Also, carry all of your carboys with some sort of handle or even with a milk crate.